(Update: Adds comment from administration officials at Thursday background briefing)
(CNSNews.com) – As U.S. and Chinese officials continue high-level talks in Washington, Chinese state media are reiterating Beijing’s contention that recent revelations of widespread National Security Agency surveillance have undercut U.S. accusations of Chinese cyber-attacks.
Allegations of massive-scale Chinese cyber snooping and theft of U.S. military secrets as well as commercial intellectual property have roiled bilateral relations, but China has seized the opportunity provided by the NSA surveillance leaks this summer to portray itself as victim rather than perpetrator.
As the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) got underway on Wednesday, official media outlets reprised that theme.
For the first time since the annual dialogue was launched five years ago, a special working group on cyber issues has been formed and met early this week before the opening of the two-day S&ED.
A senior administration said in a background briefing that the issues discussed included “norms of state behavior in cyberspace” and “cyber-enabled economic theft.”
“I think we could say both sides made practical proposals to increase our cooperation and build greater understanding and transparency between the two sides,” the official said.
At the formal opening of the S&ED on Wednesday, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi mentioned “cyber security” among “global challenges” on which the two countries should work together.
Secretary of State John Kerry listed “the issues of cyberspace and cyber warfare” as challenges faced by the two countries, while Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew spoke of the importance of an economic relationship that includes protection “from government-sponsored cyber intrusion.”
Vice President Joe Biden was more direct, declaring that “outright cyber-enabling theft that U.S. companies are experiencing now must be viewed as out of bounds and needs to stop.”
But in the view of China’s state media, it is the United States that has been found to be “out of bounds,” following the recent leaks by the fugitive former NSA consultant, Edward Snowden.
Among the various revelations made by Snowden since he first emerged in Hong Kong in early June were claims of NSA surveillance on cyber targets in China, as well as the hacking of Chinese cellphone companies. (Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities, later flew to Russia, where he is believed to be in a Moscow airport’s transit zone while trying to find a country to grant him asylum.)
Although the U.S. “has shaped itself as a victim of cyber espionage in the past years,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial Thursday, “it has been proved now that the U.S. is behind the world’s most serious spying activities.”
The paper said Chinese officials did not need to “hype” the NSA surveillance issue during the S&ED in Washington, but they should use it as a tool “to psychologically deter the U.S. delegation.”
“The U.S. should stop making the case for accusing China of cyber espionage and showing off their moral high ground of human rights protection,” it added.
The Xinhua news agency in a commentary also advised against “hyping” the Snowden leaks affair during the Washington talks, saying it should not overshadow “much more important issues between the two nations.”
However, the article then went on to criticize the U.S. over the matter.
“For many Chinese, it is bizarre that how Washington can continue to pose as the biggest cyber espionage victim and demand others behave well after former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. spy agencies hacked deep into China and other countries’ computer networks, including those of government, military, research, educational and business organizations,” it said.
The Communist Party organ People’s Daily said in a column the Snowden revelations had “embarrassed the U.S. government in front of the international community,” and exposed double standards.
It accused the U.S. of deciding which cyber-attacks are “good” and which are “bad,” in accordance with “its own national security standards and its fight against terrorism.”
The state-run China Daily, meanwhile, reported on claims by China’s Internet security watchdog that almost one-third of more than 13,000 attacks on Chinese computers originating from foreign countries between January and May this year were from addresses or servers in the U.S.
U.S. officials say the Chinese are conflating cyber activities that are a part of widely-practiced intelligence-gathering, and cyber activities designed to steal commercial secrets and intellectual property.
“We were exceptionally clear, as the president has been, that there is a vast distinction between intelligence-gathering activities that all countries do and the theft of intellectual property for the benefit of businesses in the country, which we don’t do and we don’t think any country should do,” a senior administration official said Thursday during a teleconference background briefing on the S&ED.
“We were very frank with them that you cannot mix apples and oranges in this case,” added another of the briefing officials. “What we are concerned about is cyber-enabled, government-sponsored theft of intellectual property. And the Chinese do understand what we are talking about, and it’s not the same as what they’re talking about.”
U.S. government agencies and private firms have issued several reports in recent months highlighting the extent of China’s cyber theft and hacking.
In February the Virginia-based cyber security firm Mandiant in a report linked attacks going back to at least 2006 and targeting more than 140 American companies to a Chinese People’s Liberation Army unit stationed in Shanghai. The Chinese defense and foreign ministries denied the claims.
A Defense Science Board report released in January said Chinese cyber espionage efforts had breached 37 Pentagon weapons programs and another 29 other defense technologies.
And in its annual report to Congress on Chinese military power, released in May, the Pentagon stated that some of the many cyber-attacks targeting U.S. government systems last year “appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.”
“These intrusions were focused on exfiltrating information,” it said. “China is using its computer network exploitation (CNE) capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs.”